Spinal Injury: an overview

26 June 2017

A photo of a spineSpinal Cord Injuries Awareness Day is held annually in May. One of the aims of the day was to raise awareness of the statistics concerning spinal injury (such as there are 50,000 people in the UK and Ireland living with paralysis due to a spinal cord injury) and the fact that such an injury does not mean the individual concerned has to give up.

A spinal injury is a life changing event that can impact upon all aspects of an individual’s life from health and medical care, employment, family life and social interaction.  Over the course of the next 8 weeks members of the clinical negligence and personal injury team at Kingsley Napley will be exploring various aspects of spinal injury.  Topics covered will include types of spinal cord injury (such as posterior, anterior and central spinal cord syndrome), the main causes of a spinal injury (road traffic accidents, falls and sporting injuries) and how to live with an injury that renders an individual paraplegic or tetraplegic.

This blog, the first in our series, provides a general overview of the spinal anatomy. 

The spinal cord runs from the brain to the pelvis and is protected by the spinal column.  The spinal column is made up of vertebrae each separated by a disc and divided into four regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral.  There are a number of vertebrae within each region – 7 in the cervical spine, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar and 5 sacral.  Each spinal level is usually abbreviated.  For example, an injury at the level of the fifth cervical vertebrae will be described as C5.

At every spinal level is a pair of spinal nerves that exit the spinal cord on either side.  These nerves control motor and sensory function and reflexes.  The spinal cord is vulnerable but well protected.  There are three layers protecting the spinal cord – the dura, arachnoid matter and pia matter.  For there to be a spinal cord injury there is either compression of the spinal cord (usually caused by vertebral displacement, degeneration or slipped discs), spinal cord swelling (such as infection) or direct injury caused by a traumatic force (a violent fall, assault or a road traffic accident) leading to a vertebral fracture.

The extent of injury and functional deficit depends on the level at which the spinal cord injury occurs.  Injuries to the upper regions of the cervical spine usually result in loss of control of legs and arms. Injures sustained at the lower cervical spine will leave some use of arms, an injury below the C7 level will leave a patient paraplegic.

There is a universal classification system to identify spinal cord injuries devised by the American Association of Spinal Injuries (ASIA).  The injury will be identified by the spinal level and assigned a category between A to E.  An injury falling within category A will result in no motor or sensory function, category B is applicable where there is sensory but no motor function, C is where motor function is preserved and consists of movement against gravity (such as lifting a leg), D is slightly weaker than normal motor function and E normal neurological function.

Upon sustaining a spinal cord injury the individual will be admitted to one of the spinal injury treatment centres across the country.  Their injury will be classified using the ASIA scale and they will receive appropriate medical and therapeutic treatment.  The individual will also be taught how to manage their condition and live with a newly acquired spinal injury.  They will remain under the care of a spinal injury treatment centre on an outpatient basis.

An individual with a newly acquired spinal injury will be able to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience collated by organisations such as the Spinal Injuries Association and the Back Up Trust.  This knowledge covers the financial implications of a spinal injury, equipment and medical issues and the physical and psychological impact of living with such a devastating injury.  Although such an injury is a life changing event it does not necessarily have to mean the end of a meaningful life.  These issues will be touched upon in more detail in our series of blogs to be published in the coming weeks.

If you, or a member of your family, are affected by any of the issues covered in our blogs please contact one of our specialist spinal and back injury lawyers on enquiries@kingsleynapley.co.uk or call us on 0207 814 1200.


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